The Decline of Christian Hegemony


Figure 1

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Beliefs in God in the United States: 1988-2000 General Social Surveys (N=7,980).


Yesterday, a Pew Funded study on American religion was released, with much fanfare. It seems to be an OK study, but I suspect that it’s high on N, and low on response rate. Plus, there is only so much you can do with a single shot, cross-sectional study. Change happens over time, and across generations. At one particular instance, you only get a view of what seems to be.

Still, one thing that is becoming more salient in studies of American religion is that substantially more people are opting out of religious affiliation, and embracing non-Christian views of the nature of the supernatural. Currently, the best available data from the General Social Surveys show that over 16% of Americans are Atheists, Agnostics, or believers in a supernatural that does not reflect a “god”. That’s about the same proportion of Americans who reject a religious affiliation, and, predictably, there’s about a 55% overlap–non-believers and unconventional believers aren’t connected to religious groups.

In earlier cohorts, virtually all Americans reported growing up with a religious affiliation, while GSS data show that more than 10% of Americans born after 1970 were raised without a religious affiliation. What has happened? One of the key factors is that Americans are now more free to choose not to consume religion. Throughout most of American history, anyone wanting to establish status in the community, protection for their family and children, or solvency for their businesses, would be forced to project some aura of piety by embracing affiliation with a Christian denomination (with a token nod to allowing Jews some standing). To fail to be religious was considered proof of illegitimacy and immorality, and we still see strong vestiges of this–particularly in the political realm where candidates must profusely declare their allegiance to Christianity (and maybe Judaism).

Throughout the 20th Century, Christian activists helped undermine their own moral authority by evidencing quite prominent moral failings. The racist bigotry, warmongering, greed, child abuse and molestation, misogyny, and hypocritical sexual behaviors commonly found in Christian America enabled non-religious persons to reject the moral condescension of Christian activists, and to establish alternative sources of social status and moral standing. Now, the non-religious have more voice to respond, and to tell their children that religious fanaticism and hypocrisy are morally undesirable traits.


One Response to “The Decline of Christian Hegemony”

  1. rudy Says:

    I would like to relate my experience. To me, being led to Christianity by a still innner voice and converting to Catholicism in middle age was the most important thing in my life. Before I would have said ‘knowing’ God is the most beautiful thing imaginable to me, but now, I would rather say ‘trying to let myself be aware of the presence of God’.

    I was raised in a atheist/agnostic environment and now realize looking back that there was a lot of good, moral guidance in that environment, but there was also a lot of anger/rebellion against other good moral values, and a lack of ability to identify some things as bad that were devastatingly destructive in my development.

    The sins of Christian leaders and the possibility that those sins would discourage people from exploring their inner spirituality that is God is extremely disheartening. I would say to those discouraged people, why punish yourself and cut yourself off from the source of healing because of the failings of others? They should not have that power over you. They are worthy of our compassion, we must never lose our compassion.

    Ok, Sherkat, thank you for for your interesting blog, and for letting me add my thoughts here.

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